Document 14: "The Future of the League of Women Voters," The New Republic, 9 February 1921, p. 302.
Women reformers often had to justify their participation in social movements in the face of male opposition. The opposition faced by The League of Women Voters provides an example of these challenges. The League was a non-partisan organization founded in 1920 as an outgrowth of the suffrage movement. It was designed to educate women and help them use their new political power effectively. League members were encouraged to be political themselves, by educating citizens about, and lobbying for, government and social reform legislation. The following document, which also appears in "Woman Suffragists and Partisan Politics, New York," responded to attacks on the League by male politicians fearful of the growing political power of organized women.
The Future of the League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters owes a substantial debt of gratitude to Governor Miller of New York. By an ill-considered and indefensible attack upon the League at a critical moment in its development he has issued on behalf of a large and active section of the Republican party, a challenge to its leaders are members which will confirm them new in their purpose to go ahead with their work and help them to clarify their outlook and program. Instead of discrediting the League, as he intended, the Governor’s indictment of its objects will intensify its appeal to those of the newly enfranchised voters who believe that the bestowal of political power on women can be made to contribute a positively new element to the standards and practices of American politics.
The League is essentially a kind of mutual improvement society for women voters. It consists to a considerable extent of former workers in the agitation for suffrage who are opposed to the formation of a woman’s party but who aspire none the less to make the woman’s vote a valuable addition to the gold reserve of American politics rather than a mere inflation of its voting currency. Its leaders have succeeded already in building up an extensive organization and in recruiting a numerous membership. It adopted at the conference of its founders an enlightened but essentially moderate political and social program, but it does not seek to impose this national program upon its state and local associations. Its object is fundamentally educational. It seeks by discussion, study and sometimes by agitation, to teach its membership to use their political power more intelligently and more effectively. It is not opposed to the regular parties. It has never discouraged its members from enrolling as Democrats or Republicans. On the contrary its leaders and almost all enrolled as party members, and they advise women voters to follow their example. But inasmuch as the local Democratic and Republican organizations do not provide the needed centres of political discussion and education, the League proposes to create in addition local clubs of women voters, federated into national and into state organizations, which will satisfy their wholesome craving for the independent discussion and, if necessary, the aggressive agitation of political and social issues.
This is the society whose activity Governor Miller denounced as a menace to American institutions. He does not, of course, consider its educational activity menacing. The association becomes from his point of view a menace is so far as its work ceases to be exclusively educational and seeks to translate the convictions and aspirations of its members into political influence. Regular political parties are, according to Governor Miller, the only groups which can legitimately exercise political power. A League of Women Voters which competes, no matter how prudently and provisionally, with the absolute authority which the national parities are entitled to exert on the political decisions of their members is to that extent a menace to American institutions. By impairing party allegiance, it diminishes the cohesion of the great agency which the American democracy has forged for the purpose of organizing and consolidating majority rule. By threatening regular party candidates with the loss or the gain of support as a consequence of voting or not voting in certain ways, it renders them less susceptible to party control. And this consequence, according to Governor Miller, is deplorable not because the party program is necessarily superior to that of the League of Women Voters, but because a party is a responsible agent of government while a non-partisan league of voters is only a body of political skirmishers which is not capable of winning victories at the polls and assuming the full responsibility of government.
Almost all the newspapers in New York City have pointed out the obvious weakness of this indictment. The answer returned to Governor Miller by certain Republican members of the League does not leave much of his argument alive. But Republican opposition to the League is not confined to speeches. Far more serious is the behavior of the Republican party chiefs in those neighborhoods where the League has succeeded in recruiting new members. The local Republican leaders are using all their influence with Republican women to prevent them from joining the League. They argue, just as Governor Miller argued, that by joining an independent organization of voters a woman is injuring the smooth operation of a mechanism which is necessary to the success of American democratic institutions. They have in many cases practically served notice that a woman who by joining the League qualifies her allegiance to the Republican party will, as a consequence of her partial infidelity, disqualify herself for any position of responsibility in the gift of the party. The Republican machine is fighting the League wherever it threatens to become a power, even though the League is not fighting the Republican party. If it succeeds in its struggle for political influence and a large membership, it will succeed in spite of the inveterate hostility of the Republican politician.
The inveteracy of this hostility points to a grave defect in the practical organization of American politics with which the League of Women Voters has the opportunity of dealing. If the local centers of partisan political activity functioned vigorously and provided the American nation with a sufficient means of informing, unfolding and clarifying popular opinion, party politicians would not fear the competition of a League of Women Voters and such a League would be deprived of its clearest title to existence. But these local centers are atrophied. They have become merely the parts of a centralized party machine which exists for the sake of giving and transmitting orders. The professional and political machinists think only of the smooth operation of the mechanism. They dread more than anything else the formation of new groups which may revitalize local centres of political discussion and social cohesion. The professional politician does not really object, as Governor Miller says, to the formation of minor groups of voters who propose to exercise political power in the interest of some special purpose. He exists for the purpose of conciliating or buying off groups of aggrieved farmers, groups of insistent prohibitionists, groups of would-be pensioners and the like. But he fears the two kinds of competition for which he is not prepared and whose road to success would run over his dead body.
The first would be the formation of another political party which would convert a large and increasing body of voters to the support of some new formulation of the American national purpose. The second would be the creation of political and social groups organized, as the national parties are, on a territorial plan, which would seek by experiment, by discussion and by agitation to educate their members in the art of political and social cooperation for the benefit of a higher standard of social behavior. The party politicians realize that the formation and the successful operation of such groups, even if undertaken by women who sincerely did not intend to injure the existing party machines, would impose on those parties the disagreeable choice of decentralizing their own mechanism and improving their own standards or else of suffering from a dangerous diminution of authority over the rank and file of their members.
Governor Miller in his Albany speech merely gave a frank expression to the fear which the party politicians feel towards any movement which looks towards the reinvigoration of the local centres of political opinion and resolution. He has advertised and emphasized the conflict between the centralized party machines which exist in order to exercise power and to manufacture votes and new political groups which would exist to educate opinion and raise the standards of political and social intercourse. It is by advertising this conflict that he has clarified the future program of the League of Women Voters and has confirmed its friends in their convictions of the importance of its work. The contribution which the women voters have an opportunity of making to American politics is that of restoring to neighborhood groups, to town meetings, some of their former efficiency as agencies of political and social education.
The function of neighborhood groups in a political democracy is of the first importance. It is by means of the discussion and the conflicts of interest and opinion among individuals and classes which take place within such groups that the people of a democracy learn how to make up their mind. Indeed only by such an intensive local exchange of ideas and comparison of interests can they develop a common mind and carry on a national tradition. The American democracy is suffering from the lack of common mind, because the neighborhood groups which functioned so vigorously during its formative years are lifeless and dead. The powerful tendencies which make in favor of centralization, the tendencies which are gradually reducing individuals and neighborhoods to insignificance as obedient parts of huge industrial and political machines, are in danger of destroying the common mind of the American people in the frightened or greedy effort to unify or control their activities. If American nationality is to remain the expression of a moral rather than a merely mechanical unity, good Americans must combine to reinvigorate the vitality of those domestic and parochial centres of human traffic and intercourse, which provide a mansion for the wholesome educative activity of smaller groups, of less ambitious enterprises and of humbler people.